The government expects that India's adult population will be vaccinated against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) by the end of December, but there is "no fixed timeline at present" for the completion of the "dynamic" inoculation process, the health ministry told the Lok Sabha on Friday.
Between August and December, 135 crore doses of COVID-19 vaccines are expected to be available, Bharati Pravin Pawar said in a written reply to a set of questions by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Trinamool Congress member Mala Roy. The government also said a total of Rs 9725.15 crore was spent "so far on the COVID-19 vaccination programme including procurement of vaccines and operational cost for vaccination".
Experts have called for a speedy inoculation programme that they say is India's best bet against the pandemic, especially at a time when fears of a possible third wave are looming.
According to Our World in Data (a data-driven website that aims to make "progress against the world's largest problems"), India has fully vaccinated about 6.4 percent of its population. The data, last updated on 21 July, said a total of 41.8 crore doses had been administered, and 8.76 crore people fully vaccinated. India's adult population is estimated at 94 crore.
Earlier this year, the health ministry suggested that there could be 216 crore doses available between August and December, a figure that Niti Aayog's VK Paul subsequently described as "optimistic and aspirational".
"The COVID-19 vaccination is an ongoing and dynamic process, which is being guided by National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 (NEGVAC) on the basis of concurrent scientific evidence. In view of the dynamic and evolving nature of COVID-19 pandemic, no fixed timeline at present can be indicated for the completion of vaccination drive, however, it is expected that beneficiaries aged 18 years and above will be vaccinated by December 2021," Pawar said in her reply.
The response also said there was no delay "in entering into purchase agreements with the domestic manufacturers". The health ministry added advance payments "have also been made...for the supply of orders" placed with vaccine-makers.
India, a country of over 130 crore people, began its inoculation drive on January 16, with health care workers getting the shot in the first phase. The net was widened in February to include frontline workers in the list of beneficiaries. In March, all above 60 and the 44+ population with comorbidities became eligible for vaccination. In April, the comorbidity clause was dropped, making all above 44 eligible for the drive. In May, the entire adult population was made eligible for the jabs.
The drive suffered a few hiccups with its pace slowing down in May, even as a brutal second wave of infections triggered an unprecedented shortage of hospital beds and life-saving medical oxygen in the country. Some states alleged that they had to put brakes on the vaccination drive due to shortage of stocks, though the Centre maintained enough vaccines were available in the country.
In their separate set of questions (which were merged because of their similarities), Gandhi and Roy asked the government whether it planned to complete the vaccination exercise by December and whether it had taken note of a "significant delay in entering into advance purchase agreements…" They also asked about the details of funds spent, projected August-December vaccine availability, and projected production capacity of domestic manufacturers.
India's vaccination drive is running on the back of Serum Institute of India's Covishield (the made-in-India version of the Oxford Astrazeneca shot), Bharat Biotech's Covaxin and Russia's Sputnik V. The Centre has cleared the emergency use of Moderna's vaccine, but it is yet to arrive in India.